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The Real Losers In A Government Shutdown

HuffPost- Howard Fineman

First Posted: 02/18/11 04:44 PM Updated: 02/20/11 07:59 AM

WASHINGTON — The plane hasn’t taken off, let alone crashed, but the pilot and co-pilot are already on the intercom blaming each other for catastrophe.

That’s what’s going on as President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner maneuver toward a March 4 deadline for extending or changing this year’s federal budget. They are issuing preemptive “I told you so”s, hoping to insulate themselves from blame if no deal is reached and the government shuts down.

The president moved first. He rarely issues veto threats, never mind carrying them out. But he ordered his Office of Management and Budget to issue one on his behalf last Tuesday. In essence, he said that if Congress sent him a deep-cut bill like the one House Republicans are gleefully crafting, he’d veto it. Having warned them in advance, he was saying, he couldn’t be blamed if the GOP went ahead.

On Tuesday, Boehner — eager to stay ahead of his Tea Party Republican Guard — answered back. For his part, he said, he would refuse to consider a plain bill to temporarily extend the existing budget in its current form past March 4. Having warned the president in advance, he was saying, he couldn’t be blamed for the shutdown.

So, if there is one on March 4 — and we seem headed almost inexorably in that direction — who will suffer the most politically?

History is not really a guide. The last big shutdown, in 1995, ended up being a clear winner for then-President Bill Clinton, but primarily because of the hubris and overreach of the then-Republican Speaker (and potential 2012 presidential candidate) Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich managed to make the whole drama look like a matter of personal pique. Go back and look at the famous — and, for Gingrich, devastating — front page of the New York Daily News. It showed Newt as a baby with a bottle; politics is a game of comparison, and he made Bill Clinton look mature.

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There are a variety of explanations for the frustratingly backwards outcome of yesterday’s election.

Clearly Americans were dissatisfied with the objective reality that the Obama administration and the congressional Democrats actually made things better by cutting the deficit by an historic $122 billion; creating upwards of three million new jobs; ending the war in Iraq; passing the largest middle class tax cut in history; and rescuing the economy from the brink of collapse. Not good enough, obviously.

Or did voters simply not know about these accomplishments? That’s entirely possible given the Democratic Party’s uncanny penchant for running away from its successes, while also fumbling very basic add-water-and-serve marketing chores. (And, by the way, adding to the party’s failures to ballyhoo its accomplishments, the progressive movement was systematically out-hustled, out-gunned and outmaneuvered for much of the last two years.)

Of course there’s also the Flailing Rage Factor, which I tend to favor as a reason for yesterday’s outcome more than ignorance or lack of Democratic marketing chops. For two years now, Americans have been incited by fakery and horror stories to the point of being pumped up into a ‘roid raging mob chanting shallow platitudes and bumper sticker zingers — incoherently attacking Speaker Pelosi’s face, and bent out of shape by the fact that there’s not a doddering old white guy stumbling through the West Wing spinning grandfatherly yarns about American mornings and saintly cowboys.

Ultimately, what Americans voted for yesterday was divided government, which admittedly isn’t new in American politics. We typically like the idea of two sides, Congress and the White House, locking horns and ultimately compromising on the important matters of the day.

Unfortunately, this is a “pre-01/20/09” mindset. It’s a mass delusion based on antiquated political attitudes.

The era when Republicans would, at least reluctantly, compromise with a Democratic president is long gone.

What voters unknowingly asked for yesterday was gridlock: immovable, unprecedented, insufferable gridlock of the worst kind, and at the worst time imaginable.

The Republicans have no intention of handing the president any successes. They’ll never in a million years compromise with this White House, or the Senate Democrats for that matter, because any move in that direction will bring down the loud, screechy tweet wrath of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party who will neither accept nor support anyone who appears to be leaning in the direction of the Obama agenda.

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